Minority spiritual groups encompass a range of new religious movements and minority spiritual paths. These small, individual groups are not a new phenomenon, but reflect man’s diverse and eclectic approach to spirituality and finding an inner meaning to life. Because small minority groups may have little widespread knowledge, they may sometimes suffer from being judged based on generalisations and limited information. However, to adherents they may offer a fulfilling approach to life.
What minority spiritual groups can offer
1. Spiritual enlightenment is very individual
There is a saying: “As so many people, so many paths”. This highlights the fact that individuals may be drawn to different spiritual and religious paths, depending on temperament and inclination. Conventional religions may appeal to many. However, others may not feel at home within the more formal structure of an organised religion. Minority spiritual groups may have looser structures and appeal to those seeking a more individual religious experience. Also, within spirituality, there are a range of commitment and focus that people may like to give. To many, religious worship once a week is enough to satisfy their needs. But, for others, they may feel a need to incorporate spiritual practises into every aspect of their life, from work to social life.
2. Spirituality is often a minority choice
True spirituality will never criticise other paths and choices. But, at the same time, true spirituality doesn’t fit in with a purely materialistic approach to life. Spiritual paths tends to emphasise selfless service, minimisation of materialistic needs and a willingness to put spiritual pursuit above materialistic gain.
Some groups and monastic orders may embrace total poverty (e.g. Christian monastic tradition) others may not, but usually there is an awareness materialistic gain is not the primary goal of life. To reject the more popular assumptions of modern secular life is often a minority choice.
The great benefit of liberal democracy is that diversity and tolerance is enshrined in law. Secular diversity means embracing a multitude of paths, even if we don’t necessarily agree with others approach to life. J.S. Mill defined liberty as
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
On Liberty (p.18)
Minority spiritual groups have sometimes been the source of government regulation, but generally liberal democracies support the idea that people must be free to pursue their own approach to happiness – only intervening if the actions of citizens directly affects the liberty of others.
4. New thought
Many new spiritual / religious movements have offered fresh thinking which have challenged the existing social and cultural norms. For example, religious figures, such as the Buddha, Kabir and Guru Nanak challenged the existing caste systems of society they were in. True religion teaches the essential equality of man. Long established religions can become part of a more ossified political and social establishment. New religious movements can offer different ways of looking at society and over time, the best elements can be incorporated into society. For example, Sri Ramakrishna practised the sadhana of many different religions and came to the conclusion all religious practises could ultimately lead to the same goal. His disciple, Swami Vivekananda offered this message of religious tolerance at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, and the Twentieth Century saw many more people accepting of religious tolerance and interfaith ideas.
5. From minority path to greater acceptance
Some of the world’s great thinkers and servers adopted a minority spiritual path. They were path-finders, following a path which was very different to the established religious and political orthodoxy of the time. Even the great religions of the world often started as a small, minority ‘cult’. Often in the early phase, these new spiritual paths were criticised, even prohibited by political elites who saw this spiritual path as a threat to their temporal power. Some of the world’s most inspiring figures started a spiritual path, which at the time was very much a minority and often criticised. For example.
Pythagoras (c. 570 BC – c 495 BC) Greek philosopher, better known for a mathematical theorem. Pythagoras was also a religious leader of a secret mystical school.
Socrates (469 – 399 BC) Athenian philosopher, famous for his Socratic method of questioning every preconception. His philosophy was eagerly followed by a few youths, but he was put on trial for promoting beliefs and thoughts which the political orthodoxy feared.
Buddha (c 560BC – c 460BC) After enlightenment, The Buddha taught a new path, which later became the different religions of Buddhism.
Jesus Christ (c.5BC – 30AD) Prophet and inspiration of Christianity. His revolutionary spiritual message of love and forgiveness, led to a new religious movement.
St Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) St Francis was born to a wealthy family in Italy. His religious conversion and embrace of poverty and celibacy was initially a subject of derision, but after the Pope blessed his new order, the Franciscans became an important branch of Christianity.
Rumi / Sufi mystics (1207 – 1273) Sufi mystics, such as Rumi, Hafiz, Rabia al Basri followed a path of Sufism, which stressed devotion and love. The free thinking and unorthodox attitude of Sufis was often censored by authorities.
George Fox / Quakers. In mid 17th Century, George Fox was instrumental in creating a new religious movement of Quakerism – which emphasised people could have a direct experience of Jesus Christ. Initially their teachings were considered blasphemous. Quakers became well-known for their principled opposition to slavery and war.
Problems of characterisation
Minority spiritual groups often suffer from being judged under a broad umbrella of minority groups, with little effort to understand the variety of experience, philosophy and structure within the huge range of groups that may proliferate. One of the ways to discredit a broad range of small religious movements is the generic label of ‘cult’. With examples of damaging cults, receiving media coverage, a generic label of cult applied to small religious groups, is widely considered to be a derogatory term, which creates strong negative connotations from the reader. Scholars of new religious movements avoid the term ‘cult’ for its strong preconceived notions which are unhelpful to give a fair portrayal of the group in question. If the media label a minority religious group as a cult; it creates a very strong negative connotation, which can be difficult to dislodge.
Lack of information.
One problem minority spiritual groups have is that there is often little reliable information about their practises because by definition they are small. This lack of information can create a fear about what the group offers. Without being able to meet in person people who practise the religion, generalisations and view may be made upon third party accounts.
Negative portrayals receive more coverage than positive portrayals.
Within any religious group, there will always be a proportion who, at some time will leave the group. Of these who leave, some may become negative about their whole experience – perhaps regretting they pursued a religious path, rather than doing other things. Apostates may speak badly of their former group for a variety of reasons. These negative accounts can make a ‘newsworthy’ item because allegations of mistreatment or ‘brainwashing’ make an interesting article. However, the counter-point – adherents who have good experiences from following the new religious movement, do not make an interesting news article. Therefore, there is a tendency for the media to focus on negative stories (which may only be a very small percentage of the groups membership). One negative story can create a bandwagon effect as other newspapers take this is a reference point, without examining the group at first hand.
Minority spiritual groups are in existence because there is a need and desire for a range of broad range of spiritual paths. To those seeking a deeper meaning of life, it invariably requires looking a life from a different perspective to at least some of the social norms and more materialistic assumptions.
Each spiritual group deserves fair treatment, based on the realisation that it is not possible to make broad sweeping generalisations about small groups we know little about. History shows that minority spiritual groups can and do offer a rich cultural and spiritual presence in society, and overtime can become more widely understood.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Minority spiritual groups”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 6 February, 2016.
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